The Brontës In The United States Of America

Last Saturday was the fourth of July, a day when the United States of America celebrates its national holiday marking the day in 1776 when thirteen colonies declared their independence from England. There’s little doubt that many Americans are among the most passionate Brontë enthusiasts, so today we’re going to take a look at the Brontës in America.

Of course the Brontës themselves, unsurprisingly at that time, never made it to the United States, but there are a number of interesting connections. Let’s start with the ridiculous and journey on to the sublime. Anne Brontë’s first job as governess was for the Ingham family of Blake Hall in Mirfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and anyone who has read of the Bloomfield family in Agnes Grey will know how difficult her task was.

Blake Hall, Mirfield
A piece of Blake Hall can now be found in Long Island

Anne left her employment at Blake Hall in late 1839, but the Hall remained an imposing presence in Mirfield until the 1950s when it was demolished to make way for a new housing estate, with its once exalted fixtures and fittings sold off piece by piece in auctions that attracted bidders from across the world. Perhaps the architectural highlight of the hall was its grand central staircase, and this was bought by an Allen Topping of Long Island, New York. Topping was fabulously wealthy with money no object (think ‘Jay Gatsby’), so he paid for the Blake Hall staircase to be dismantled, shipped to America and then reassembled in his own mansion.

In 1962 Allen’s widow reported seeing a ghostly lady descend the staircase dressed in Victorian garb including a long shawl. Mrs Toppings’ dog started barking but when she comforted the dog, the figure smiled at her. This spectral figure was then seen on a number of occasions, and Mrs Topping sensed that it was the ghost of Anne Brontë. Whether Anne did become the only Brontë to make it to the United States, I leave you to decide.

Anyone who has visited Haworth will be in no doubt how popular it, and the Brontës, are with book lovers from across the pond. American tourists are the lifeblood of Haworth, and I know that their presence will be warmly welcomed once things return to something akin to normal again. One particular American is very important to the Brontë Parsonage Museum story: Henry Bonnell.

During the latter decades of the nineteenth century many Brontë relics ended up in the United States, by legitimate and sometimes less than legitimate, means, and Bonnell was foremost among the legitimate Brontë collectors. He had worked in publishing and made a considerable fortune which he invested in Brontë writing, art and memorabilia. After his death in Philadelphia in 1926, he left his entire collection to the Brontë Society, and his bequest made up a large part of the collection of the Brontë Parsonage Museum when it opened two years later. Many of the exhibits you will see when the museum re-opens (which should hopefully be soon) came from Bonnell, and the exhibition room next to the shop is now named after him.

Henry H. Bonnell
Bronte collector Henry H. Bonnell

As we know, the Brontës never travelled to America (we’re not counting ghosts) but a very close relative did. Their Aunt Jane, elder sister of their mother Maria and their Aunt Branwell, emigrated to Baltimore in Maryland in 1808 with her husband John Kingston and three children (she was also heavily pregnant at the time). John had been a Wesleyan minister, but had been defrocked after being found guilty of infidelity and theft. With his good name gone, he decided to start a new life in the new world (he’d previously served as a missionary in Baltimore) but things must have gone from bad to worse, for in April 1809 Jane sailed from New York with her new baby daughter Eliza, leaving her husband and elder children behind in America.

I think this bold move marks Aunt Jane as the precursor of Helen, the eponymous tenant of Wildfell Hall. American-born cousin Eliza was later given a quarter of Elizabeth Branwell’s bequest, along with Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, but it’s another of Jane Kingston’s children who is of particular interest to us on this occasion.

View of Baltimore by William H. Bartlett
Early 19th century Baltimore plays a part in the Bronte story

The family line of the Branwells of Penzance, cousins of the Brontës, died out completely in England in 1964 with the death of Patrick Arthur Brontë Branwell. The Branwells were gone from England, but they weren’t gone completely. Anna Branwell Kingston was born to Jane Kingston (nee Branwell) and the Reverend John Kingston in 1803, and sailed with them for Maryland in 1808. She had to stay with her father when her mother returned to Cornwall, but she later married a man named Joseph Bergstresser (a native of Pennsylvania, like Henry Bonnell). Mirroring the path the Brontës took, the Bergstressers changed their name to hide their roots and became the Burgsters.

Anna had a daugher, Maria Louisa and a son Joseph Kingston, whose family line is also now extinct. Maria, however, married Jacob Horning. They had a daughter Lottie Bell Horning (was Bell used as an indicator of their Brontë connections?) who married a William Fagen. Ada Louise Fagen was born in 1889 and married Thomas Hester, whilst Percy Horning Fagen was born in 1899 and married Athalene Kane. The lines of descent from these two children, first cousins of the Brontës three times removed, are still going strong.

I have managed to find nine such descendants, including an infant who will carry on this lineage to another generation, in various locations across the United States. Some of them have remarkable stories of their own, including a veteran of the Vietnam War, a leading pathologist, and a man whose wife survived a mass shooting. I have attempted to contact them but, alas, I received no replies. I will have to respect their privacy of course, but the fact remains that these people are the closest living maternal relatives of the Brontës in the world today – so, in a sense, there really are Brontës in America.

Genealogy is fascinating, but there isn’t much that’s as fascinating as a good Brontë book. Have a great week, stay happy and healthy, and I’d be delighted if you could join me again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

The Brontës And July, And New Brontë Books

Despite the unusual circumstances we all find ourselves in, this year seems to be flying by. We are now in the second half of the year, the month of July – a month that always sees school’s break up (er, never mind that one) and the birthday of Emily Brontë (and me). In today’s new post we’re going to look at the month of July in the Brontë writing, and we’ll also look at two excellent new Brontë related books.

July In Jane Eyre

July sees Jane take decisive action and leave Rochester and Thornfield Hall, seemingly for good. Even as the moment of flight dawns Jane is tempted by the thought of her true love, so tantalisingly and easy in her reach, but so opposed to her heartfelt values:

‘It was yet night, but July nights are short: soon after midnight, dawn comes. “It cannot be too early to commence the task I have to fulfil,” thought I. I rose: I was dressed; for I had taken off nothing but my shoes. I knew where to find in my drawers some linen, a locket, a ring. In seeking these articles, I encountered the beads of a pearl necklace Mr. Rochester had forced me to accept a few days ago. I left that; it was not mine: it was the visionary bride’s who had melted in air. The other articles I made up in a parcel; my purse, containing twenty shillings (it was all I had), I put in my pocket: I tied on my straw bonnet, pinned my shawl, took the parcel and my slippers, which I would not put on yet, and stole from my room.

“Farewell, kind Mrs. Fairfax!” I whispered, as I glided past her door. “Farewell, my darling Adèle!” I said, as I glanced towards the nursery. No thought could be admitted of entering to embrace her. I had to deceive a fine ear: for aught I knew it might now be listening.

I would have got past Mr. Rochester’s chamber without a pause; but my heart momentarily stopping its beat at that threshold, my foot was forced to stop also. No sleep was there: the inmate was walking restlessly from wall to wall; and again and again he sighed while I listened. There was a heaven – a temporary heaven – in this room for me, if I chose: I had but to go in and to say,

“Mr. Rochester, I will love you and live with you through life till death,” and a fount of rapture would spring to my lips. I thought of this.

That kind master, who could not sleep now, was waiting with impatience for day. He would send for me in the morning; I should be gone. He would have me sought for: vainly. He would feel himself forsaken; his love rejected: he would suffer; perhaps grow desperate. I thought of this too. My hand moved towards the lock: I caught it back, and glided on.’

Rydings, an inspiration for Thornfield Hall, was home to Ellen Nussey

July In Villette

Perhaps strangely we see a very similar July scene being played out in Villette. Lucy determines to sneak out of her chamber despite the sleeping draught administered by Madame Beck, and once again we see the protagonist creeping along the corridors, scared of waking the rest of the household:

‘How soundly the dormitory slept! What deep slumbers! What quiet breathing! How very still the whole large house! What was the time? I felt restless to know. There stood a clock in the classe below: what hindered me from venturing down to consult it? By such a moon, its large white face and jet black figures must be vividly distinct.

As for hindrance to this step, there offered not so much as a creaking hinge or a clicking latch. On these hot July nights, close air could not be tolerated, and the chamber-door stood wide open. Will the dormitory-planks sustain my tread untraitorous? Yes. I know wherever a board is loose, and will avoid it. The oak staircase creaks somewhat as I descend, but not much: – I am in the carré.’

Pensionnat Heger
Madame Beck’s school was modelled on the Pensionnat Heger

July In Wuthering Heights

Young Catherine has defied the instructions of Nellie and been visiting Linton Heathcliff, but their discussion of what makes a perfect July day shows the divide between them. Linton favours a lazy day, but Catherine wants to immerse herself fully in the landscape and in nature – she wants to dance in a glorious jubilee. This is a magical and magnificently drawn scene, and in it we surely see Emily’s description of her own idea of July perfection:

‘One time, however, we were near quarrelling. He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly. That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness: mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy. He wanted all to lie in an ecstasy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle and dance in a glorious jubilee. I said his heaven would be only half alive; and he said mine would be drunk: I said I should fall asleep in his; and he said he could not breathe in mine, and began to grow very snappish. At last, we agreed to try both, as soon as the right weather came; and then we kissed each other and were friends.’

July In The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

For Helen Huntingdon, July is often a trying month. We learn from her diaries that this is one of the months that her husband Arthur is frequently away visiting friends, visits that can last for months at a time. At first Arthur writes to her, but eventually they become infrequent and unloving:

‘He promised fair, but in such a manner as we seek to soothe a child. And did he keep his promise? No; and henceforth I can never trust his word. Bitter, bitter confession! Tears blind me while I write. It was early in March that he went, and he did not return till July. This time he did not trouble himself to make excuses as before, and his letters were less frequent, and shorter and less affectionate, especially after the first few weeks: they came slower and slower, and more terse and careless every time. But still, when I omitted writing, he complained of my neglect. When I wrote sternly and coldly, as I confess I frequently did at the last, he blamed my harshness, and said it was enough to scare him from his home: when I tried mild persuasion, he was a little more gentle in his replies, and promised to return; but I had learnt, at last, to disregard his promises.’

So what do we learn from looking at July in the Brontë books? Well, we can see that Charlotte associated warm July nights with sneaking out of the house, and that for Emily it meant a month where she could immerse herself in nature at its most beautiful and wildest. For Anne, or at least for Helen, it was a month where her thoughts turned to loved ones and wished they were there. There is one thing that all the protagonists above have in common: they are dreaming of a better future, and ready to take steps to make it happen. Perhaps this then is the Brontë message for July: the start of the second half of the year brings new opportunities, and a warmer, happier time awaits us if we spring into action.

Talking of Brontë books, I this week purchased two Brontë related books which are perfect July reading matter. The first is called There Was No Possibility Of Taking A Walk That Day, and it’s a collection of poems from the ‘A Walk Around The Brontë Table’ Facebook group. The title also relates to our current lockdown as well as Jane Eyre, so it’s perfect for these times. I loved this book – so many people passionate about the Brontës have given full reign to their creativity and the results are always interesting and often excellent. I can’t pick out every single contributor worthy of praise because there are so many, but I especially loved ‘Seclusion’ by Christina Rauh Fishburne, which tells of raising a family in this ‘new normal’ in beautifully rhythmic and poetic prose (her brother Charlie Rauh also has an excellent poem inside – a highly talented guitarist his new Bronte related album is out later this month, I’ll have more news on that in a later post), the title poem by Julie Rose written in honour of her father who passed away in April, and ‘Lockdown And The Brontës’ by Emma Langan which blends Anne Brontë’s words with her own to create a moving story of loss, courage and hope. There are fine contributions from the UK, USA, Germany, Netherlands and Lithuania and there are also beautiful illustrations from Emily Ross, Debs Green-Jones and JoJo Hughes. As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book and it makes great summer time reading that you can dip in and out of.

Another book I loved was The Governess Of Thornfield by expert Brontë blogger Charlene DeKalb. You may remember that I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago when it was first available to download, but I now have a paperback copy. I love the premise of this – you play Jane Eyre rather than simply read Jane Eyre. By this, I mean that at certain points within the dialogue you’ll be asked to make a choice and turn to a corresponding section of the book – for example we find a familiar opening as you (Jane) are sat reading your favourite Bewick book in Gateshead Hall. The inevitable happens and Mrs Reed finds that you have hit the horrible John. You are ordered to the Red Room but do you go willingly or do you beg for mercy? That’s the first of many choices, and your answer can drastically change the course of the book; for example, will you accept Rochester’s proposal or decline it? I absolutely loved The Governess Of Thornfield for two reasons – it’s so cleverly constructed, with just the right amount of choices, and this really draws you into Jane’s story, allowing you to enjoy it in a whole new way. Secondly, it’s beautifully written. Charlene takes Charlotte’s plot and characters, but re-writes them in her own style, and the result is superb. I certainly hope that this isn’t the last book we see from Charlene DeKalb, as this is a great addition to any Brontë book collection.

Finally, I want to mention Without The Veil Between by D.M. Denton. I first read this fictional retelling of Anne Brontë’s life in 2017, and I greatly enjoyed it. For some reason it has been monstered in the latest edition of Brontë Studies by a Dr Stoneheart. Surely there is room for academic writing on the Brontës, there is room for mass appeal books about the Brontës, and there is room for well written fictional works about the Brontës? To attack the book cruelly because it doesn’t adhere solely to the facts would be like attacking Jane Eyre because: ‘No lady, we understand, when suddenly roused in the night, would think of hurrying on “a frock.” They have garments more convenient for such occasions, and more becoming too.’

Veil Between cover

As you may have guessed this is from the infamous review of Jane Eyre by Elizabeth Rigby, whom we looked at last month. I personally have had enough of Rigbyist reviewing but of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion. All I will say is that I feel you would need a heart of stone not to appreciate the love for Anne Brontë that D.M. Denton has, and which she conveys admirably in what I found a sweet and moving read.

With that off my chest I move on full steam ahead to what should be a very beautiful July, and I hope that happiness awaits you all too. Stay happy, healthy and alert, keep reading books by and about the Brontës, and I will see you next Sunday for a new Brontë blog post.



Was Branwell Brontë The Real Arthur Huntingdon?

Thank you to all who watched me at the online Felixstowe Book Festival on Friday – I really enjoyed it, and if you missed it you can catch some of the action via this link:

I was asked some excellent questions, and one woman wanted to know how much Branwell Brontë had influenced Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s brilliant novel The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, so that’s what we’re going to look at today.

Helen is happy with her marriage to Arthur – but it won’t last

Arthur is possibly the most villainous of all Brontë characters – Heathcliff may run him close, but at least we can see from his back story where his seething jealousy and anger comes from. Arthur is wealthy and handsome, with all the advantages privilege can bring, and yet he cares for absolutely nothing but his own pleasure.

Huntingdon is a narcissist and a hedonist, but everything he does is taken to extremes. He drinks heavily and takes drugs, he cheats on his wife and abuses her physically and mentally, and does his best to corrupt his young son so that he will grow up to be as venal as his father. Living life so recklessly produces the inevitable ending, and Arthur dies at a young age, presumably from liver failure caused by his excessive alcohol consumption.

Anne Brontë, as we know of course, is a brilliant novelist, and so skilfully does she depict Arthur’s behaviour that people often think she must have drawn it from real life – and then their attention usually turns to her brother Branwell.

Charlotte Brontë, too, may have thought that Huntingdon is a portrait, at least in part, of their brother – after all, he too was addicted to alcohol and opiates, and his behaviour was increasingly erratic in his final years. In her autobiographical notice of Anne and Emily, Charlotte wrote:

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Acton Bell, had likewise an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid. She had in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail as a warning to others.’

Huntingdon is a character with no redeeming features

Whose talents misused and facilities abused had Anne been called on to contemplate near at hand and for a long time? In the aftermath of Branwell’s death, Charlotte wrote to W. S. Williams:

‘When I looked on the noble face and forehead of my dead brother… and asked myself what had made him go ever wrong, tend ever downwards, when he had so many gifts to induce to, and aid in an upward course – I seemed to receive an oppressive revelation of the feebleness of humanity.’

Charlotte saw Branwell in Huntingdon in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, and it may be this that turned her against what is, on any objective view, a brilliant work of literature, but is Branwell Brontë really the prototype of Arthur Huntingdon? I don’t think so.

Certainly Anne would have seen Branwell’s drunken behaviour, but Branwell was far from the unredeemed villain that we see in Huntingdon. He could be kind, thoughtful and loving, especially in his younger days when the four surviving Brontë siblings were very close. We also know that on occasion Branwell managed to quit his drug dependency by going cold turkey, which points to his influence on another character altogether within The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall: Lord Lowborough.

Lowborough is first seen as one of Huntingdon’s crowd of pleasure seekers, but he eventually turns his back on their antics and weans himself off opiates. Perhaps then this is closer to Anne’s view of Branwell: a man who has been troubled, who has burdens to bear, but who is capable of redemption. I think perhaps the best, and most touching, description of Branwell’s character comes in Francis Grundy’s Pictures Of The Past in which he devotes a chapter to a man who’d been a close friend: ‘Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon – he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way.’

Thorp Green Hall
Thorp Green Hall, home of the Robinsons

Branwell was no domestic demon, although he could certainly on occasion cause domestic turmoil, but Arthur Huntingdon was, so if Branwell wasn’t the inspiration for Huntingdon, who was? One possibility is Edmund Robinson, Anne’s, and later Branwell’s, employer at Thorp Green Hall. Edmund was a member of the gentry who could live comfortably and extravagantly, just like Arthur. He was a choleric man who liked hunting and drinking. Although ordained as a priest in the Church of England (common then among younger sons of the aristocracy who wouldn’t inherit a title), he never held a curacy and only officiated at family baptisms and on one other occasion: the baptism of a young girl from Thorp Green village. We can speculate why he took such an interest in this infant – could he, like Arthur, have been serially unfaithful to his wife, and could this be one reason why Lydia Robinson, in her turn, took an interest in Branwell Brontë – a man who respected her and showed her affection? He died aged 46, possibly as a result of his intemperate lifestyle.

Another man who is sometimes named as a Huntingdon suspect is George Gordon, better known as Lord, Byron. He certainly behaved abominably towards his wife Annabella, having numerous affairs including with his own half-sister Augusta Leigh. In December 1815 they had a daughter Ada, who is now famed as the mathematical and computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, but just a month later Annabella took her baby and left Byron for good.

Annabella Milbanke
Wikipedia names Annabella Milbanke as a possible Helen, making Lord Byron a possible Arthur

There is one possible inspiration for Arthur, certainly for Helen, closer to home for Anne. Her aunt Jane, from the Branwell family of Penzance, married the Methodist minister Reverend John Kingston, but six years into their marriage a scandal engulfed the family. John had been discovered having affairs with other men and with having committed theft, and he was thrown out of the Methodist church. With his job gone and name tarnished, John took Jane and their family to start a new life in Baltimore, America.

It seems that their marriage must have disintegrated further in Maryland, for just a year later Jane left her husband and sailed back to England with her baby daughter Eliza, tragically having to leave her older children with their father. With the help of her sister Elizabeth she set up a laundry business back in Penzance, and lived as a single parent. It seems clear to me that Elizabeth, Aunt Branwell, must have told her nieces at least some of this story, and that Aunt Jane became a prototype for Helen.

Early 19th century Baltimore, where Eliza Kingston was born
Early 19th century Baltimore, where John Kingston fled with the Brontes’ Aunt Jane

In summary then, I don’t think Branwell was Arthur – for all his frailties he was much loved by Anne, who had found him a job alongside her at Thorp Green Hall, but I do think Arthur could have been influenced by Edmund Robinson, John Kingston and even Lord Byron. Like all great writers, Anne took a variety of sources and life experiences and created something powerful and original. Whoever the inspirations are, we can all agree that The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is a brilliant book that is as relevant today as it’s ever been. Stay happy and healthy, and I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Online Brontë Talk Tonight – And Branwell’s Birthday

I hope you don’t mind but today’s mini post is a quick reminder about my Brontë talk at the online Felixstowe Book Festival’s book club – tonight from 7.30pm to 8.30pm. It’s completely free, and I’d love to see you there.

Crave The Rose by Nick Holland

I’ll be talking about my book Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200 and about how to write a work of non-fiction, but mostly I’ll be talking about Anne, her novels and her siblings. The first part of this session will be me taking questions from Liz Rastrick, after which I will take questions from people viewing via Zoom.

If you want to watch via Zoom you can join at half past seven using meeting ID: 858 5444 7275 or use the following link: You should also be able to watch via the Felixstowe Book Festival’s Facebook page, but you won’t be able to ask questions live if you use this method.

Happy Birthday Branwell
Happy 203rd Birthday Branwell Bronte!

We’ll be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Anne Brontë’s birthday, so feel free to have a slice of cake to hand – I’m just about to bake one myself. No doubt I’ll also mention Anne’s brother Branwell Brontë – and it’s his 203rd birthday today! I leave you with this poem by Branwell – if you can join me tonight that would be great, although I know how busy we all are now, and I will be back with another full length post on Sunday. Here is Branwell’s ‘The Results of Sorrow’ written under his pen name of Northangerland, with his touching last line: “A tortured heart will make a tyrant mind”:

Brontës Online: Musicals, Dramas, Docs & Books

This plaguey lockdown has brought changes to us all. It has been hard for many adjusting to this ‘new normal’, but there have also been some new opportunities and heartwarming moments. One thing I’ve absolutely loved has been the superabundance of culture now available for free online. I’m temporarily unable to visit beloved venues such as the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe and Glyndebourne, but I’ve really enjoyed watching some of their stunning productions online, and all for free.

Unfortunately, the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre play is no longer available to watch – it was brilliantly staged and very well acted, but for me it just failed to hit the heights I’d hoped for – although it was certainly an enjoyable production. In today’s post I’m going to look at some Brontë themed productions that are still available to watch, and I’ll also bring you news of an online talk that I’m giving free next week – it’s free to watch, so I’d love to have you there.

Emily, Anne, Branwell and Charlotte Bronte in Wasted
Emily, Anne, Branwell and Charlotte Bronte in Wasted

Let’s start by looking at Wasted, which was produced at Southwark Playhouse in Autumn 2018. It’s a musical – I love musicals, so far, so good, and Southwark Playhouse has a great reputation when it comes to them. I saw Funny Girl there a few years ago, with Natasha Barnes standing in for Sheridan Smith as the lead character Fanny Brice.

I was pleased then to see Natasha back and playing another real life character – this time she stars as Charlotte Brontë in a rock musical setting. Yes, Wasted sets the Brontë setting against a rock backdrop – could that really work? Well, I’m pleased to say that in my opinion it does. All musicals make you suspend what you think of as ‘normality’ (just like this plague), after all in real life when you have stabbed someone, lost a loved one, or made a life changing decision you don’t immediately burst into song. You may think that setting the Brontë story against a backdrop of guitars, drums and rock style vocals would be incongruous, but in fact I think it works well and the story of our favourite siblings still comes across loud and clear.

We begin with Charlotte on stage, or Mrs. Nicholls as she introduces herself before informing us that she is expecting a happy event shortly. We then head back to her childhood in Haworth with Anne, Emily and Branwell, and one of the things I loved about this musical is the characterisation that the talented cast instil into their roles. There are some minor quibbles – Anne is portrayed as more self-righteous than she actually was, for example, and at one point we are informed that ‘there are no Catholics in Haworth’, something which was as untrue then as it is now. There’s a little swearing too, but if you’ve watched To Walk Invisible you’ll be used to that.

Those quibbles aside, this is a production with plenty of strengths. Its creative team of Carl Miller (book) and Christopher Ash (music) clearly know the Brontë story well, and have a passion for our favourite writers; this is shown in plentiful little moments borne out by what we know of the Brontës, such as the young Charlotte being called ‘Talli’ by her siblings.

Siobhan Athwal is feistiness personified as a forthright Emily Brontë, while Molly Lynch is a quietly determined and eye catching Anne. Matthew Jacobs Morgan is excellent as Branwell, portraying his youthful arrogance but also showing how his great creative potential is, well, wasted due to factors beyond his control. It’s a moving performance, as is Natasha Barnes’s Charlotte. Barnes is a consummate musical professional, a powerful singer who can take us through the full gamut of emotions, and that’s exactly what she and her fellow cast members do in a little more than two hours with more highs and lows than a rollercoaster ride. It ends, in a reversal of T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase, not with a whimper but a bang. The title track sees the late Brontës lament how their lives have been utterly wasted, but of course we know very different and it’s this that gives this musical a delicious pathos and feverish power. Your lockdown time certainly won’t be wasted if you watch it, and it’s available completely for free at the following link:

Jane and Rochester 1983
Zelah and Timothy as Jane and Rochester

YouTube is a great spot for Brontë treats. Some can still be purchased over the internet, so I won’t give the links but among the gems on offer are the 1973 Yorkshire Television series The Brontës Of Haworth and the BBC’s 1983 version of Jane Eyre starring Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton. This, in my opinion, is the very best dramatisation of Charlotte’s work, brimming over with passion and yet completely faithful to its source material.

Haworth's Main Street in The Bronte Business
Haworth’s Main Street in The Bronte Business

Unfortunately there’s no To Walk Invisible on iPlayer yet, but there is a real treat for fans of the Brontës and social history in the form of The Brontë Business. First shown in 1977, the brilliant Joan Bakewell travels to Haworth to see how Brontë related tourism is affecting the village they lived in. It’s a fascinating documentary on many levels, and it’s often surprising how very different the village and society was back then. It often looks and feels closer to Victorian times than our own, and the meeting of the Brontë Society committee could have come from a spoof documentary film – and yet it also has its powerful, moving moments as the only woman present tell us tearfully of how there isn’t a day when she doesn’t think about Wuthering Heights. Times change, but the power of the Brontës doesn’t. If you live in the United Kingdom (sorry to everyone reading this abroad as I don’t think iPlayer shows are available overseas) then you can catch the documentary here:

The Bronte Society in 1977
The Bronte Society in 1977

We all love reading of course, and due to their age and our copyright laws all the Brontë novels can be downloaded for free on the internet, but there’s a fun new book available for free right now as well. The Governess Of Thornfield is a reworking of Jane Eyre by Charlene DeKalb, and what makes this especially interesting is that it’s a ‘choose your own adventure’ book – if you’re not familiar with this style of book, it means that at regular steps throughout the narrative you have to decide what happens next by selecting from a number of options and choosing which section to turn to. With a number of different endings will Jane live happily ever after with Rochester, or is a different ending waiting for her? You decide. It’s free today, the 21st of June, and can be found on Amazon on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ve downloaded it and look forward to reading it later as I loved this kind of book in my youth. It’s sure to be well executed as the author runs the brilliant Eyre Guide blog and is a fellow Brontë fanatic; this could be a great way to introduce younger readers in your family to Jane Eyre too, or simply a lovely way to pass a few hours.

Finally, on to my Brontë discussion – this Friday, 26th June, at 7.30 pm I will be discussing Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200, In Search Of Anne Brontë and the Brontës in general at the Felixstowe Book Festival. I had hoped to be at this lovely seaside resort in person, but of course all such festivals have been cancelled or suspended, but I’m thrilled that they have moved their events online. On Friday at 7.30 I’ll be discussing the books in conversation with author Ruth Dugdall, after which I’ll be taking questions from an online audience (at a ‘live’ talk I was once asked what bus number ran from Keighley to Haworth, so I hope that one doesn’t crop up again). It’s completely free and you can join in via Zoom using the meeting ID: 858 5444 7275. Zoom is the online meeting app that has taken the world by storm in recent months, and it’s so easy that even I can use it. Don’t worry, you don’t need to go on camera yourself, you can still view the fun – all the details are here – all you have to do is have the Zoom app on your phone, laptop, PC or tablet, press the ‘join meeting’ button and enter the above ID number when prompted. I’ve been talking to myself for the last three months, so please do join in or view if you can as it would be nice to talk to somebody else for once.

Felixstowe Book Festival Nick Holland
Join me at the Felixstowe Book Festival via Zoom on Friday!

Whatever you do during this lockdown, don’t let your time be wasted. Stay happy and healthy and I’ll see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, and there might even be a bonus mini-post on Friday too.

Charlotte’s Revenge On Brontë Criticism

The old saying says that there are only two certainties in life: taxes and death. I think we can add a third: criticism. It doesn’t matter what we all do in life, somebody will find something to criticise us about, whether it be our skills as a parent, in a job, or in a creative endeavour. This latter criticism was something the Brontës had to face on many occasions, and unfortunately it was far from constructive. In today’s post we’re going to look at two prime examples of the criticism that Charlotte Brontë faced, and how, with a little help from a publishing house, she gained a belated yet rather unique revenge.

The critics misunderstood and attacked the Brontës because they were such powerful, original writers. Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (as the critics believed Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë to be called) were writing with a brilliance, freshness and honesty that shocked many of the staid men and women whose job it was to pronounce judgement on the latest literary releases. Yes, women too were among the most vociferous critics of the Bells, and perhaps the most brutal and unfair critique of them all came from Elizabeth Rigby, later to become Lady Eastlake.

Elizabeth Rigby
Charlotte Bronte’s nemesis Elizabeth Rigby

To be fair to her, some people have pointed out Elizabeth’s better qualities; it seems that she was very helpful to Effie Ruskin at the time she was undergoing marital difficulties with John Ruskin – the marriage was eventually annulled and Effie married the eminent Pre-Raphaelite John Millais. Elizabeth Rigby could be a good friend, but not to writers whose books she was reviewing. Wordsworth, for example, she denounces as, ‘ a puzzle to me – commonplace in thought and barren in word, yet with some he is more popular than any other poet.’ The great artist Turner was, ‘pertinacious and stupid.’

In December 1848, as a reviewer for the Quarterly Review she was given the task of reviewing Jane Eyre, and produced a review so shockingly lacking in astuteness that I have to reproduce it here:

‘The inconsistencies of Jane’s character lie mainly not in her own imperfections, though of course she has her share, but in the author’s. There is that confusion in the relations between cause and effect, which is not so much untrue to human nature as to human art. The error in Jane Eyre is, not that her character is this or that, but that she is made one thing in the eyes of her imaginary companions, and another in that of the actual reader. There is a perpetual disparity between the account she herself gives of the effect she produces, and the means shown us by which she brings that effect about. We hear nothing but self-eulogiums on the perfect tact and wondrous penetration with which she is gifted, and yet almost every word she utters offends us, not only with the absence of these qualities, but with the positive contrasts of them, in either her pedantry, stupidity, or gross vulgarity. She is one of those ladies who put us in the unpleasant predicament of undervaluing their very virtues for dislike of the person in whom they are represented. One feels provoked as Jane Eyre stands before us – for in the wonderful reality of her thoughts and descriptions, she seems accountable for all done in her name – with principles you must approve in the main, and yet with language and manners that offend you in every particular.

It would be mere hackneyed courtesy to call it ‘fine writing.’ It bears no impress of being written at all, but is poured out rather in the heat and hurry of an instinct, which flows ungovernably on to its object, indifferent by what means it reaches it, and unconscious too. As regards the author’s chief object, however, it is a failure – that, namely, of making a plain, odd woman, destitute of all the conventional features of feminine attraction, interesting in our sight. We deny that he has succeeded in this.

Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit… altogether an anti-Christian composition… the impression she leaves on our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman – one whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend, whom we should not desire for a relation, and whom we should scrupulously avoid for a governess… No lady, we understand, when suddenly roused in the night, would think of hurrying on ‘a frock.’ They have garments more convenient for such occasions, and more becoming too… if we ascribe the book to a woman at all, we have no alternative but to ascribe it to one who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex. And if by no woman, it is certainly also by no artist… We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.’

These are just the, ahem, highlights, as Elizabeth Rigby’s review is over 15,000 words in length – almost a novella in itself. It should be said, however, that this long review also incorporates a scathing appraisal of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and it also addresses the rumour ‘current in Mayfair’ (which Elizabeth dismisses) that Jane Eyre has been written by a maid in the service of Thackeray.

Imagine the impact that this review had on Charlotte – seeing her work dismissed as coarse and of little value, and herself dismissed as a woman of low morals. This was by no means uncommon in reviews of Charlotte and her sisters at the time, and this criticism even continued in the aftermath of Charlotte’s death.

In June 1855, just two months after her passing, Sharpe’s London Magazine printed an article examining the author’s life and work entitled, ‘A Few Words About “Jane Eyre”:

‘Some eight years since, a novel, in three volumes, emanating from the shelves of, if we are not mistaken, Messrs. Smith and Elder, found its way, by their influence, into the circulating libraries; and, in due course of time, met with readers, and became famous. But the strange thing was, that no two people could agree with their opinions of it, so full was it of contradictions. Miss A. was delighted with it, Miss B. as much disgusted – Miss C. heard it so talked of, that she was most anxious to read it; but her married sister, Mrs. D, said, “No woman under thirty ought to open it.”’

This critic also attack Rochester’s use of, ‘real wicked oaths, like a bold, bad, live man:

‘All this was very odd and incorrect; the novel-reading public had become accustomed to the “fiends and furies” style; believed in it as the common language to the aristocracy of nature, and associated all plainer speaking with pot-house company, skittles and unlimited beer and tobacco. So the public clamoured at this glimpse of nature thus unceremoniously revealed to them, very much as they would have clamoured if the writer had chosen to go to the opera sans culottes [‘without pants’]’

Having monstered Jane Eyre the magazine then prints a number of blatant untruths about the Brontë family history – stating, for example, that Patrick Brontë had been a minister in Penzance and met Maria Branwell there, but that her family turned their back on her because of the marriage. In truth, of course, Patrick never went to Cornwall, and far from shunning Maria a member of the Branwell family, Elizabeth, visited them in Thornton for over a year, and eventually became resident in Haworth Parsonage. The magazine also gave a most unflattering portrait of Charlotte’s physical features, which you can see below:

Charlotte’s great friend Ellen Nussey was distraught when she read this article; so much so that she wrote to Charlotte’s widow Arthur Bell Nicholls and begged him to write to Elizabeth Gaskell asking her to produce an authorised Brontë biography. Arthur was less than keen on this idea, possibly because he and Ellen were on far from friendly terms, so Ellen next wrote to Patrick Brontë who was much more receptive to the scheme. He wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell and the result, of course, was her The Life Of Charlotte Brontë.

The criticism the Brontës received was unfair and unmerited, and we can be sure that it hit home. I recall an interview between Michael Parkinson and the brilliant poet laureate John Betjeman in which he talked of the negative criticism he’d received:

‘I always believe it’s true. I believe anything that’s said against me is true, and anything said in my favour is flattery. I never can believe that I’m any good at all.’

The truth is that Betjeman was very good indeed, as were the Brontës, and that must have made the criticism, and especially the personal attacks, even harder to bear. Anne Brontë looked her critics straight in the face, and hit back in brilliant fashion in her preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall; Emily Brontë met the attacks with her customary stoicism, but the effects of the cruel words can perhaps be seen in the fact that she wrote no new work after the publication of Wuthering Heights, other than the reworking of an earlier poem. And Charlotte? Well for Charlotte, revenge was served cold. Do you remember that photograph of Elizabeth Rigby earlier? This week I purchased another edition of Villette for my Brontë collection – it was published by Pan Classics in 1973. Take a look at the cover star – I wonder what Lady Eastlake would have thought of her picture being used to illustrate a novel by an author who she felt had ‘long forfeited the society of her own sex’?

Bravo to the person who selected Elizabeth Rigby as the cover star of Villette!

I believe it’s game, set and match to Charlotte. Stay happy and healthy, and I hope you can join me next Sunday for my next Brontë blog post.

The Month Of June In The Brontë Novels

We’ve entered what is often called ‘Flaming June’ – the month that marks the beginning of meteorological summer. Of course, as we’d expect from the sort of year 2020 has become June has announced herself not with hot, sunny days but with downpours and gusts. After record breaking temperatures in April and May, when most of us were firmly locked down, now the first few Covid parolees are stumbling blinking through their doors we seem to have reverted to north-pole days once again. Such is the year we find ourselves in, but at least we will always have great books to divert and console us. In this week’s Brontë blog post we’re going to look at the month of June in the novels of the Brontës.

Jane Eyre

‘It was the first of June; yet the morning was overcast and chilly: rain beat fast on my casement. I heard the front-door open, and St. John pass out. Looking through the window, I saw him traverse the garden. He took the way over the misty moors in the direction of Whitcross – there he would meet the coach.

“In a few more hours I shall succeed you in that track, cousin,” thought I: “I too have a coach to meet at Whitcross. I too have some to see and ask after in England, before I depart for ever.” It wanted yet two hours of breakfast-time. I filled the interval in walking softly about my room, and pondering the visitation which had given my plans their present bent. I recalled that inward sensation I had experienced: for I could recall it, with all its unspeakable strangeness. I recalled the voice I had heard; again I questioned whence it came, as vainly as before: it seemed in me – not in the external world. I asked was it a mere nervous impression – a delusion? I could not conceive or believe: it was more like an inspiration. The wondrous shock of feeling had come like the earthquake which shook the foundations of Paul and Silas’s prison; it had opened the doors of the soul’s cell and loosed its bands – it had wakened it out of its sleep, whence it sprang trembling, listening, aghast; then vibrated thrice a cry on my startled ear, and in my quaking heart and through my spirit, which neither feared nor shook, but exulted as if in joy over the success of one effort it had been privileged to make, independent of the cumbrous body.

“Ere many days,” I said, as I terminated my musings, “I will know something of him whose voice seemed last night to summon me. Letters have proved of no avail – personal inquiry shall replace them.”’

Thornfield Hall after the fire
Jane found a very different Thornfield Hall to the one she’d left

In Jane Eyre the start of June sees our eponymous heroine decide to track down Rochester after seeming to hear his voice calling to her. The rest is history, so I don’t think I will be spoiling too much if I say that reader, she married him.

Wuthering Heights

‘On the morning of a fine June day my first bonny little nursling, and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock, was born. We were busy with the hay in a far-away field, when the girl that usually brought our breakfasts came running an hour too soon across the meadow and up the lane, calling me as she ran.

“Oh, such a grand bairn!” she panted out. “The finest lad that ever breathed! But the doctor says missis must go: he says she’s been in a consumption these many months. I heard him tell Mr. Hindley: and now she has nothing to keep her, and she’ll be dead before winter. You must come home directly. You’re to nurse it, Nelly: to feed it with sugar and milk, and take care of it day and night. I wish I were you, because it will be all yours when there is no missis!”’

In Wuthering Heights Frances has given birth to a son who we will later come to know as Hareton, but giving birth signals her own death, just as it will for Catherine after the birth of Cathy. At the climax of the novel these two children, now adults, will themselves find love and redemption and the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth that Emily Brontë saw in nature will continue.

Hareton and Cathy
Frances’ son Hareton finally finds happiness with Cathy, and the cycle is complete (for now)

Agnes Grey

‘The 1st of June arrived at last: and Rosalie Murray was transmuted into Lady Ashby. Most splendidly beautiful she looked in her bridal costume. Upon her return from church, after the ceremony, she came flying into the schoolroom, flushed with excitement, and laughing, half in mirth, and half in reckless desperation, as it seemed to me.

“Now, Miss Grey, I’m Lady Ashby!” she exclaimed. “It’s done, my fate is sealed: there’s no drawing back now. I’m come to receive your congratulations and bid you good-by; and then I’m off for Paris, Rome, Naples, Switzerland, London – oh, dear! what a deal I shall see and hear before I come back again. But don’t forget me: I shan’t forget you, though I’ve been a naughty girl. Come, why don’t you congratulate me?”’

Lydia Robinson
Lydia Robinson was less than happy at Anne’s advice for her daughters

Agnes finds it hard to congratulate her charge because she has married for position and not for love. The same battle was played out in real life, as the Robinson girls often wrote to their former governess Anne Brontë for advice on the matches their mother had made for them. Anne gave the same advice as Agnes – follow your heart, don’t marry for wealth or status. We know this from a letter Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey in July 1848:

‘Anne continues to hear constantly – almost daily, from her old pupils, the Robinsons. They are both now engaged to different gentlemen and if they do not change their minds, which they have already done two or three times, will probably be married in a few months. Not one spark of love does either of them profess for her future husband… Anne does her best to cheer and counsel her [Bessie Robinson] and she seems to cling to her quiet, former governess as her only true friend.’

Bessie certainly listened to Anne’s advice, much to her mother Lydia’s chagrin. She had been betrothed to Henry Milner, a wealthy mill owner’s son, but the engagement was broken off. The Robinsons were sued by the Milners for breach of contract, and a court ordered them to pay the offended party the substantial sum of £90 in compensation. In Agnes Grey we see Rosalie regret her decision to marry, later inviting Agnes to visit her.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

‘June 1st, 1821. – We have just returned to Staningley – that is, we returned some days ago, and I am not yet settled, and feel as if I never should be. We left town sooner than was intended, in consequence of my uncle’s indisposition; – I wonder what would have been the result if we had stayed the full time. I am quite ashamed of my new-sprung distaste for country life. All my former occupations seem so tedious and dull, my former amusements so insipid and unprofitable. I cannot enjoy my music, because there is no one to hear it. I cannot enjoy my walks, because there is no one to meet. I cannot enjoy my books, because they have not power to arrest my attention: my head is so haunted with the recollections of the last few weeks, that I cannot attend to them. My drawing suits me best, for I can draw and think at the same time; and if my productions cannot now be seen by any one but myself, and those who do not care about them, they, possibly, may be, hereafter. But, then, there is one face I am always trying to paint or to sketch, and always without success; and that vexes me. As for the owner of that face, I cannot get him out of my mind – and, indeed, I never try. I wonder whether he ever thinks of me; and I wonder whether I shall ever see him again. And then might follow a train of other wonderments – questions for time and fate to answer – concluding with – Supposing all the rest be answered in the affirmative, I wonder whether I shall ever repent it? as my aunt would tell me I should, if she knew what I was thinking about.’

Helen is happy with her marriage to Arthur – but it won’t last

In this extract from Anne Brontë’s second novel we find certain similarities with the extract from her first. Helen is secretly longing for what she then sees as a dashing suitor: Arthur Huntingdon. Her aunt, however, has given her the exact opposite advice that Agnes has given: don’t follow your heart, think of marriage as an opportunity for social advancement. Helen then follows a very different path from Rosalie Murray, and yet her marriage too is unhappy and abusive. Anne’s underlying message then is not to rush into marriage – whether you follow your heart or the money. That this is Anne’s heartfelt belief can also be seen in the conclusion of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. After Arthur’s death, Helen is finally free to marry Gilbert, but by following clues in the text we can see that Helen makes him wait a further 28 months before finally marrying him.

Four extracts from Brontë novels, three of which are specifically dated the 1st of June. They cover the whole spectrum of human life and emotions – birth, death, marriage, hopes that will turn to despair. June is a time of change and opportunity; it has always been such as such, and their writing shows just how much the Brontës believed in the transformative power of June and the start of summer. Let’s hope that things change for the better for our world in this particular June – there’s still time for this to be flaming June rather than flaming hopeless. Stay happy and healthy, I’ll see you with a new Brontë post next Sunday.

Margaret Wooler: Loyalty And Love

This weekend marked the anniversary of the funeral service and then burial of Anne Brontë in Scarborough. As you probably know, Anne is buried in a graveyard to the side of St. Mary’s church, in the shadow of Scarborough Castle and looking down towards the sea she loved. The funeral service, however, took place at Christchurch on Vernon Road, as the interior of St. Mary’s was being renovated at the time. The funeral was held on 30th May 1849, and Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey had expected to be the only people in attendance. When they arrived at the church however they found one other person already there, and she was in the right place at the right time on many occasions throughout the Brontë story. We’re going to take a look at her today: Margaret Wooler.

St. Mary's, Scarborough
Christ Church no longer stands, but its altar screen (left) is at St. Mary’s, Scarborough

Margaret Wooler first entered the Brontë tale on January 17th 1831, for on that day Charlotte started life as a pupil in Roe Head School in the hills above Mirfield. Miss Wooler, as she was known to her pupils, was headmistress and, in stark contrast to Charlotte’s first school at Cowan Bridge, she ran a kindly school that provided a high quality of education. She didn’t run it alone, however, and in its early days the school was a family concern.

An advert in The Leeds Intelligencer newspaper on 25th January 1827 announced the impending opening of the school, and the ad instantly brings to mind the prospectuses that Charlotte later had printed for ‘The Misses’ Brontë Establishment’. Just as Charlotte had hoped to do, Margaret ran the school with her four younger sisters. The only surviving photograph of Margaret shows her in old age (you’ll see that later in the post), although we do have photographs of two sisters who were especially close to her, Eliza and Catharine. We do, however, have a couple of pen portraits of Margaret Wooler’s character, including one from Charlotte’s fellow pupil at Roe Head, Ellen Nussey. Ellen first describes how Miss Wooler allayed fears of a ghost at the top of the school (which will sound familiar to Villette fans):

‘The tradition of a lady ghost who moved about in rustling silk in the upper stories of Roe Head had a great charm for Charlotte. She was a ready listener to any girl who could relate stories of others having seen her; but on Miss W. hearing us talk of our ghost, she adopted an effective measure for putting our belief in such an existence to the test, by selecting one or other from among us to attend the stairs after the dimness of evening hours had set in, to bring something down which could easily be found. No ghost made herself visible even to the frightened imaginations of the foolish and the timid; the whitened face of apprehension soon disappeared, nerves were braced, and a general laugh soon set us all right again.’

Roe Head school
Miss Wooler’s Roe Head school, Mirfield, as it is today

Ellen also writes of how Margaret liked to spend leisure time with her pupils:

‘In days when out-of-door exercise was impracticable, Miss Wooler would join us in our evening hour of relaxation and converse (for which she had rare talent); her pupils used to hang about her as she walked up and down the room, delighted to listen to her, or have a chance of being nearest in the walk.’

Charlotte must obviously have impressed Margaret as she invited her back to Roe Head as a teacher in 1835. During this time she also made the acquaintance of a new pupil, Anne Brontë. Again, she must have been impressed as not only did she present Anne with a medal and a book as a prize for her good conduct, it’s also safe to assume that she must have helped Anne get her first job as governess – with the leading family of Mirfield, the Inghams of Blake Hall.

Charlotte had loved life as a pupil at Roe Head, with her best friends Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor alongside her, but she hated the drudgery of life as a teacher at the school. Anne’s near-fatal illness at Roe Head in late 1837, and her subsequent return to Haworth, proved the catalyst for Charlotte to let off steam – in the direction of her employer. We can imagine how volcanic Charlotte’s eruption was, as she wrote to Ellen to explain the head to head she’d had with Margaret:

‘We came to a little eclaircissement one evening – I told her one or two plain truths which set her a-crying, and the next day unknown to me she wrote to Papa telling him that I had reproached her bitterly, taken her severely to task etc. etc.’

Margaret’s beloved sisters Catharine and Eliza

Charlotte resolved to leave her school. It says a lot for Margaret’s character and kindness that she instead persuaded Charlotte to continue as a teacher:

‘Just before I went away she took me into her room and giving way to her feelings which in general she restrains far too rigidly, gave me to understand that in spite of her cold repulsive manners she had a considerable regard for me and would be very sorry to part with me – if anybody likes me I can’t help liking them, and remembering that she had in general been very kind to me I gave in and said I would come back if she wished me. So, we’re settled again for the moment, but I’m not satisfied, I should have respected her far more if she had turned me out of doors instead of crying for two days and two nights together.’

Eventually Charlotte did leave the school, and given the reproaches that Charlotte had given her we could have expected that to be the last Margaret saw of her – but in fact, as we shall see, they become firm friends.

Firstly, let’s look at what else we know about Margaret. When you want to research a person from the nineteenth century, it always makes sense to look at genealogy records first – so that’s what I did with Margaret. Here is the record of her baptism on 11th July, 1872 – can you see her?

Margaret Wooler baptism 1792

Margaret was born on 10th June 1792 to Robert and Sarah Wooler. Her father was a mill owner, and the family were wealthy. We next encounter a Margaret Wooler in rather surprising circumstances in 1811. On 29th April of that year, in Mirfield parish church a Margaret Wooler married a Michael Holcar. Could this be our Miss Wooler of Mirfield, and if so why was she not Mrs Holcar? My first thought was that she was in fact a widow, but if so why did she revert to her maiden name? Could it be another Margaret Wooler in Mirfield? Alas, we will never know, as try as I might I could find no more details of this married couple – in fact, rather surprisingly once again, I can find no other record at all of a Michael Holcar living anywhere in England at this time. It will have to remain a mystery.

After our Miss Wooler retired from teaching she offered Charlotte the lease of her own school, by then in Dewsbury, on condition that she could continue to live there too, but Charlotte chose instead to head to Brussels to further her education. In her retirement, Margaret bought and lived in a number of properties, including one at the North Bay of Scarborough. Hearing from Charlotte that Anne Brontë was desperately ill in 1849, and that she wanted to see Scarborough one last time, she offered the sisters the use of her home free of charge. Anne decided that she wanted to stay on her favourite South Bay instead but it is clear that Margaret heard of Anne’s death on 28th May, either from Charlotte or Ellen, or in the local newspaper, as she too attended the funeral service at Christchurch – paying her last regards to one former pupil, and providing support to another.

This Iceland store on Vernon Road at Christchurch House is on the site of the church

By looking at census returns we see that in 1851 Margaret was living in Dewsbury once more, this time in Dewsbury Parsonage with her sister Susanna and her brother in law the Reverend Edward Nichols Carter. Three years later she was called upon to provide a very important service to Charlotte Brontë. Just as Anne’s funeral had been, Charlotte’s wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854 was a very private and low-key affair. We know from a first hand account of the service that there were only eight people present, including the happy couple, and we have Margaret’s signature on Charlotte’s wedding certificate. She had been invited to serve as a bridesmaid with Ellen Nussey, but at the last moment Patrick had decided he was too ill to attend and so Miss Wooler stepped up to assume the father of the bride role, and gave Charlotte away. I doubt that Charlotte could have envisaged that happening on that day 17 years earlier when she had given Margaret a piece of her mind.

Charlotte Bronte's Wedding certificate
Charlotte Bronte’s Wedding certificate, signed by Ellen and Margaret

Margaret’s travelling days weren’t over – the 1861 census shows that she had returned to the east coast, and was residing at Newbegin boarding house, Hornsea (the town now famous for its pottery, including a Brontë range) with a Margaret Warner. In 1871 Margaret was living with Susanna and Reverend Carter again, this time at the delightfully named Strawberry Square in Heckmondwike, Yorkshire.

The 1881 census shows us that Margaret is now a the head of the household at 248 Low Lane, Gomersal. By then nearing ninety years of age, she is living with two servants and, rather touchingly, her two sisters mentioned earlier – Catharine (misspelt Katharine on the form) and Eliza, aged 84 and 72 respectively. We have three sisters living together, but not the Brontës, the Woolers. This house in Gomersal was a short walk from where two of her former pupils were living at the time, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, and I like to think they visited her on occasions and talked about the old days with Charlotte.

Wooler 1881 census
This 1881 census could have been written yesterday

Certainly, Margaret had plenty of opportunity to talk about the Brontës, for in her final years she found herself much in demand. We know this from a moving account of Margaret given in 1952 by one who still remembered her. Longevity obviously ran in the genes, for the interview was given by 91 year old Reverend Max Blakeley, the grandson of Margaret’s sister Susanna. This is the second of the pen portraits I mentioned, so let’s see what Max had to say:

‘Margaret Wooler, Charlotte Brontë’s teacher and friend, was my grandfather’s sister. To me she was always “Aunt Wooler”… My earliest recollections of Aunt Wooler and her sisters, Catharine and Eliza, take me to the time when I was about eight years old. I lived at Heaton Lodge Park, near Dewsbury, and they lived in West House, Dewsbury, in a wing of their brother’s house. I was taken by my governess to see them, and as I had up to that time only met Aunt Eliza, who, though I later discovered her to be kind, was rather austere and “proper”, I felt nervous. The thought of facing three ladies of the same sort was something of an ordeal to a small boy. I saw the three aunts all sitting together and soon, child though I was, I realised that they were all very different characters. On the table between them was a large dish of oranges. Aunt Wooler, who saw me looking at them longingly, said “Would you like an orange?” Aunt Catharine gave a chuckle. Aunt Wooler then said, “would you like an orange, or that paper knife?” I well knew which, but dare not say anything with Aunt Eliza’s seemigly stern eye upon me, but she said quickly, “Oh, of course, the paper knife. But wait till you are grown up.” Feeling in doubt I looked at each Aunt in turn, and it was Aunt Wooler who, with a kind smile, held out an orange for me. This may seem a trivial thing to remember, but it has always typified for me the kind of person she was. She was not a martinet, as some people have thought…

Late in her life reporters often went to see Aunt Wooler, and when she was over ninety and not really fit for it she was constantly being visited by Americans who came with the sole purpose of interviewing her about Charlotte and the Brontës. She said to me, “I cannot refuse to see them. It was very trying, but I will do my best.”’

Margaret Wooler
Margaret Wooler in old age, a grand old lady in every way

Margaret Wooler always did her best for the Brontës, she was always there unconditionally when needed. The 1881 census lists her as a ‘gentlewoman’, and that’s exactly what she was – gentle and kind. She passed away in Gomersal on June 3rd, 1885 aged 92. She is buried in Birstall churchyard, near to a woman she had spent many pivotal moments with: Ellen Nussey. Even in death, you can’t keep Margaret Wooler far away from the Brontë story.

A Celebration Of The Life Of Anne Brontë

On this day at two in the afternoon our beloved Anne Brontë died, aged 29. That is undoubtedly a great sadness, especially when we consider the impact it must have had on her sister Charlotte and father Patrick, and when we consider how much more wonderful writing she could have produced for posterity, and how much more happiness she could have experienced in her life.

Nevertheless, I won’t be dwelling on sadness again today. We all have far too much sadness and uncertainty in our lives at the moment, and I believe that one of the greatest medicines of all is happiness. The writings of Anne Brontë and her sisters have been making people happy for over 170 years now, so today I am creating a brief post that doesn’t mourn Anne Brontë but rather celebrates her life and work. It will have her beautiful words, and the beautiful sights of nature that she loved so much and referenced in her writing, such as the primroses at the head of this post and these bluebells:

My Favourite Anne Brontë Novel: Agnes Grey

There are only two Anne Brontë novels to choose from, but what exceptional quality they both possess. Whilst The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is the most celebrated of Anne’s novels, and I love it dearly, Agnes Grey holds a special place in my heart. The reason is simply that it’s short, perfectly written, and is in many ways autobiographical so when we read the novel we gain an understanding of Anne’s time as a governess, and of her love for William Weightman. The ending here is simple, understated and, in my opinion, absolutely beautiful. And now I think I’ve said sufficient about why Agnes Grey is my favourite Anne Brontë novel:

‘Our modest income is amply sufficient for our requirements: and by practising the economy we learned in harder times, and never attempting to imitate our richer neighbours, we manage not only to enjoy comfort and contentment ourselves, but to have every year something to lay by for our children, and something to give to those who need it. And now I think I have said sufficient.’

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
Weston (Weightman) and Agnes (Anne) walk the beach

My Favourite Anne Brontë Poem: The Student’s Serenade

This was a tough one – after all, Anne Brontë was a brilliant poet. Should I pick one of her poems of mourning for William Weightman such as ‘A Reminiscence’, or one of her powerful nature poems, such as ‘Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day‘, or perhaps the yearning beauty of ‘Home’? All of those came close, but in the end I opted for The Student’s Serenade – it transports us perfectly to a moment in time; we can picture the snow falling over the moors, and the narrator rushing out to wake up their beloved Maria to share the scene with them – alas, Maria will wake not from her sweetest sleep. Once again, like Agnes Grey, this is simple, perfectly constructed and beautiful.

The Student's Serenade Anne Bronte

My Favourite Anne Brontë Quote:

I could have opted for a short phrase which we can all identify with: ‘reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read’. I’m going for a longer quote though, and this time The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall emerges triumphant. How moving and beautiful is this scene when Helen, defiant and unbeaten despite all she has gone through, offers her love to Gilbert?

Winter rose, tenant of wildfell hall

My Favourite Quote About Anne Brontë:

I love the Irish writer George Moore’s pronouncement that, ‘If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.’ I’m going to go, however, for a quote from a woman who had known Anne and her sisters. My favourite part of writing Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200 was delving into the archives to find first person accounts of meetings with the Brontës. They make up the final section of the book, and I love reading them, especially this one from Tabitha Ratcliffe, first printed in 1910. Her maiden name was Tabitha Brown, and she was the younger sister of Brontë Parsonage servant Martha Brown; she had also worked in the Parsonage herself, when extra hands were needed. Nearly seventy years later, Tabitha still remembered Anne with clarity and love:

‘She still preserves a few mementoes of the various members of the family: of Miss Branwell a silk shawl, of Mr Brontë a small hammer he used to use, and of Charlotte a delaine skirt and a white sprigged net veil – which latter has served as a christening veil for several of her grandchildren. Perhaps, however, her most interesting relic is a photograph on glass of the three sisters. “I believe Charlotte was the lowest and the broadest, and Emily was the tallest. She’d bigger bones and was stronger looking and more masculine, but very nice in her ways,” she comments. “But I used to think Miss Anne looked the nicest and most serious like; she used to teach at Sunday school. I’ve been taught by her and by Charlotte and all.” And it is on Anne that her glance rests as she says, “I think that is a good face.” There is no doubt which of the sisters of Haworth was Mrs Ratcliffe’s favourite.’

My Favourite Anne Brontë Artwork

Like all the Brontës, Anne was good at anything creative she turned her hand to. Her drawing of Roe Head School, created in the weeks after her arrival in 1835, is precise and excellent, and of course it’s hard not to be impressed by her ‘Sunrise Over Sea’, but my very favourite piece of Anne’s art is ‘What You Please’. Created while she was at Thorp Green Hall, I believe the woman at the centre of the picture is Anne herself, and that she had created it for William Weightman – saying ‘this is what you please’, or ‘I am what you please’. Perhaps she wanted to present it to him when she returned to Haworth? There’s no proof of this of course, but it seems to resonate with me, and it’s a nice thought to accompany a lovely and rather alluring picture.

What You Please Anne Bronte

So I leave you with a lovely picture of Anne Brontë. These were all my personal favourites, but they’re no more valid than your choices so I’d love to hear them. Let’s not be sad today, let’s celebrate a life worth celebrating. I will see you all on Sunday for another Brontë post; until then stay healthy and happy, and join me now in saying ‘Thank you Anne Brontë!’

The Brontës And The East Coast Resorts

This weekend I should have been talking about the Brontës and my latest book Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200 at the inaugural Filey Literature Festival. Obviously it has been cancelled due to the ongoing lockdown situation, but it would have been the perfect weekend to be there, as we shall see. This week we will look at the Brontës on the east coast.

The east coast resorts of Yorkshire

We know that Anne Brontë loved Scarborough, and I’ve looked at her time there in previous blogs. At the end of May 1849 she travelled to the east coast town for the final time, but she had spent long periods there in the years 1840 to 1844 whilst governess to the Robinson family. She loved the golden sands and fresh sea air, the music and jollity of what was then a fashionable spa town, and as expressed in her poems such as ‘Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day‘ she especially loved the roaring sea and white foam topped waves.

Wood's Lodgings
Wood’s Lodgings, Scarborough – where Charlotte, Anne and Ellen stayed

Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey accompanied Anne to Scarborough in 1849 of course, but it was far from their first or last journey to the east coast resorts. They first journeyed there in the summer of 1839, when they spent five weeks on holiday together. The first month was spent at Easton House, two miles inland and home to the Hudson family. Their final week, however, was particularly joyous as they spent a week together in a house on Garrison Street in the resort of Burlington – what we today know as Bridlington.

It was a time of firsts for Charlotte – this was the first time she had ever travelled on a train, and the first time she ever saw the sea, which they initially did on the second day of their visit after walking to the coast from Easton House. Ellen Nussey later described the incredible effect this first encounter with the sea had on Charlotte:

‘The day but one after their capture they walked to the sea, and as soon as they were near enough for Charlotte to see it in its expanse, she was quite over-powered, she could not speak till she had shed some tears she signed to her friend to leave her and walk on; this she did for a few steps, knowing full well what Charlotte was passing through, and the stern efforts she was making to subdue her emotions her friend turned to her as soon as she thought she might without inflicting pain; her eyes were red and swollen, she was still trembling, but submitted to be led onwards where the view was less impressive; for the remainder of the day she was very quiet, subdued, and exhausted. Distant glimpses of the German Ocean had been visible as the two friends neared the coast on the day of their arrival, but Charlotte being without her glasses, could not see them, and when they were described to her, she said, “Don’t tell me any more. Let me wait.”’

The sea washing onto Bridlington’s beach

In October 1839, Charlotte was writing to Ellen asking her if she can still see and hear the sea in her mind, and on the 28th of October Charlotte wrote to Ellen’s brother Henry Nussey stating:

‘I will not tell you what I thought of the Sea – because I should fall into my besetting sin of enthusiasm. I may however say that its glorious changes – its ebb and flow – the sound of its restless waves – formed a subject for contemplation that never wearied the eye, the ear or the mind.’

It’s little surprise, then, that Charlotte could write of the sea with such power and emotion in Villette. In March 1845 Charlotte wrote to Ellen and showed once more the impact those five weeks in Burlington had made on her:

‘Our stay at Easton is one of the pleasantest recollections of my life – one of the green spots that I look back on with real pleasure.’

Mrs Hudson - Charlotte Bronte
While in Easton, Charlotte drew this portrait of her host Mrs Hudson

Charlotte stayed once more with the Hudson family – in 1849, in the aftermath of Anne’s passing. Knowing her love of the sea, and the restorative powers thought to belong to sea air at the time, her father and Ellen both urged her to take a break there before returning to Haworth, but this was a mournful sojourn rather than the joyous visit of ten years earlier. By this time Charlotte was in Burlington on her own, having encouraged Ellen to return to her family in Birstall, but they had first visited another east coast resort together: Filey.

This first visit to Filey for Charlotte must have passed in a quiet, mournful haze, but the town must still have captured Charlotte’s imagination for she returned three years later. In fact, it was this very weekend in 1852 that Charlotte Brontë arrived in Filey, which is why it would have been the perfect weekend to present my Brontë talk.

Charlotte stayed in Filey for a month, and on 2nd June she wrote to her father Patrick:

‘On the whole I get on very well here – but I have not bathed yet as I am told it is much too cold and too early in the season. The sea is very grand. Yesterday it was a somewhat unusually high tide and I stood about an hour on the cliffs yesterday afternoon watching the tumbling in of great tawny turbid waves that made the whole shore white with foam and filled the air with a sound hollower and deeper than thunder. There are so few visitors at Filey yet that I and a few sea-birds and fishing-boats have often the whole expanse of sea, shore and cliff to ourselves. When the tide is out the sands are wide, long and smooth and very pleasant to walk on. When the high tides are in not a vestige of sand remains. I saw a great dog rush into the sea yesterday and swim and bear up against the waves like a seal – I wonder what Flossy would say to that?’

In a letter to Ellen from Filey, Charlotte also recounted how she had attempted to walk to Filey Brigg but she had been ‘frightened back by two cows’. This brings to mind Emily Brontë’s observation on Charlotte – that she had a morbid fear of encountering unknown animals.

We have read how Charlotte was thinking upon an animal she knew well, however – Anne’s beloved spaniel Flossy. She was also thinking about Anne. It was the third anniversary of her youngest sister’s passing, and she used this holiday in Filey to make her first visit to Scarborough since 1849 – after which she paid for five corrections to be made to Anne’s headstone. I will be creating a special post on Thursday to mark Anne’s anniversary, but it will be one in which I celebrate her life and talents – I think we can all do without any extra sadness at the moment.

Filey Bronte plaque
The plaque outside what was Cliff House, Filey

It’s clear that both Charlotte and Anne Brontë loved the east coast resorts dearly. Charlotte never forgot Filey, and Filey hasn’t forgotten her. The house in which she stayed, Cliff House, now bears a plaque naming it as the ‘Brontë House’. It is now Charlotte’s restaurant, and is also home to the Brontë Vinery. It’s a pity that I can’t be in Filey as I type this but I’ll be there next year instead and it would be lovely to see some of you there – on the 26th of June, by the way, I’ll also be holding an online Brontë talk and interview as part of Felixstowe Book Festival‘s now online offering; you’ll be able to watch it for free via Facebook or Zoom so look out for more information on that in the next few weeks. Join me next week for an Anne Brontë celebration and then another new Sunday post: stay happy, stay healthy, stay alert and stay away from Durham (unless you live there of course).

Charlotte's of Filey